English faculty respond to the ChatGPT era

Student demonstrates how ChatGPT might compose an essay draft – Index Staff

Since its release last November, ChatGPT, and other generative AI tools like Bard, Alphacode and Dall-E2 have gained widespread popularity, but debate about the value of these tools in educational settings is ongoing. In less than a year since the initial release, policies and approaches to the new technology in schools have shifted.

Haverford is in the process of finalizing a new AI policy, but the school’s initial reaction was to ban the use of generative AI for schoolwork. Last winter, Haverford students were reminded of the school’s Academic Integrity policy and told that use of any generative AI would be considered a violation of the Honor Code.

School districts in cities around the country responded similarly: Los Angeles, New York and Baltimore, for example, all issued blanket bans and blocked access to the tools.

This reaction echoes the response when pocket calculators were first introduced to math classes in the 1970s. Newspaper articles from that time reveal the concern and uncertainty: “Calculators Pose a Problem,” “Controversy on Calculators: Crutches or Complements?” “Calculators Appearing but not without dissension” and “Schools try to Come to Grips with the Calculator.”

“The fact that people believe that a calculator is analogous to ChatGPT, in the writing context, reflects the reality that most people don’t really know what writing is.”

Ms. Emily Harnett

Compare that to articles in newspapers from January 2023, “How ChatGPT and similar AI will Disrupt Education,” “ChatGPT Will End High School English,” “Is ChatGPT the End of Thinking Skills?”

But is the emergence of generative AI really the same as the introduction of the calculator?

English Teacher Ms. Emily Harnett does not think so, “The fact that people believe that a calculator is analogous to ChatGPT, in the writing context, reflects the reality that most people don’t really know what writing is.”

“The reason why the calculator is permissible in math is because those very basic arithmetic skills are not connected to higher-level thinking, but pretty much all of the writing you are asked to do in history and English class is higher-level thinking.”

“No teacher at Haverford is ever asking a student to produce writing that is as mechanical as the calculations a calculator produces,” Ms. Harnett said.

English Department Chair Mr. Thomas Stambaugh said, “Writing is a thought process. It is a way for a person to sort through their ideas and order them, give them shape and try to communicate them to another person. In writing, thinking is the most important part.”

According to Mr. Stambaugh, AI tools that are similar to the calculator: spell check, Grammarly and predictive text, have already been incorporated into English classes.

The English Department began considering generative AI last winter and met several times throughout the remainder of the school year. But instead of focusing on how they might police the tool, the faculty focused on how to design instruction in a way that disincentivized students from using ChatGPT at all.

Mr. Stambaugh explained, “The use of generative AI is an ethical and moral question first. Students should ask themselves ‘what kind of student do I want to be, to what degree do I want to be independent and trust in my own abilities, to what degree do I want to use outside aids to help with this incredibly complicated process of writing.’”

“I think most Haverford students want to be capable and independent,” Mr. Stambaugh said.

Since last spring, the English Department has spent time coming up with creative texts, identifying newer, more recent publications, and developing writing prompts that AI can’t do much with yet.

For example, Sixth Formers read a play that was published only a few years ago, a piece of writing for which ChatGPT would have little to offer. 

Third Formers will read Lord of the Flies and then compare it to more obscure texts, which requires depth of thought that AI will not be helpful with.

In Mr. Pariano’s Fifth Form English class, an early writing assignment asked students to compose a story about their own gait, which required personal details that an AI tool could not possibly know. 

Initial reactions to the technology have shifted. Around the country, school districts have rescinded ChaptGPT bans and are now considering ways to use generative AI.

At Haverford, using generative AI remains a violation of the school’s Academic Integrity policy, but the existence of tools like ChatGPT has reinforced the writing skills that faculty feel are essential and, in turn, faculty are sharing the importance of those skills with students.

“I have heard more about the importance of writing from teachers this year than I have in any other year at Haverford.”

Anonymous Fourth Former

One Fourth Former, who asked not to be named, said, “I have heard more about the importance of writing from teachers this year than I have in any other year at Haverford.”

Both Ms. Harnett and Mr. Stambaugh are passionate about the writing process,

“Good writing is inseparable from critical thought,” Ms. Harnett said.  

“Words still matter. They matter in politics, they matter in human relationships, and they will continue to matter. An English class is a place to think carefully about how words matter…Young men should still pause and think carefully about the value of language, so we are going to keep doing what we are doing.”

The Stanford University AI Robotics and Education (AIRE) program is a group of experts focused on finding the best approaches to redesigning education systems in the era of AI and robotics. In an online talk called Survival Strategies in the Era of AI, Dr. Li Jiang, Director of AIRE, describes generative AI as being excellent at going from 1 to 10, but he says that to get from 0 to 1 requires human thought.

0 to 1 is where creativity, innovation and empathy exist. 0 to 1 is where human ingenuity lives. 0 to 1 requires critical thought that is uniquely human.

“The pinnacle of English language arts education isn’t the production of essays but of critical thought, specifically critical engagement with the world around you,” Ms. Harnett said. “Writing is inseparable from, and in fact identical with, that critical engagement.”